The Village Gunsmith

A Short Story by Chaithali Punchathar

My grandfather had predicted that I will become a farmer when I grew up. Not just any farmer, but an areca farmer, like him. I was born in mid 70s, by when Ajja had managed to convert all of his property, five acres of paddy fields - that spread like a soft green blanket - into an Areca garden. Ajja had five children; two sons - my Father being the oldest, and three daughters. My uncle had already announced that he was never going to get married. He planned to go to the Himalayas and become a hermit. I was an only child to my parents——only son. Now, fortunately for me and unfortunately for my aunts, those were the times when the daughters could not stake claim to their share in father's property due to a queer system of inheritance followed by the community, called patrilineal. Ajja often spoke about how I were going to become a brilliant farmer - who would solve the water problem for the plantation during the hot summer months and get the best yield in the entire village.

As much as I loved Ajja, I had certain issues with his ambitions for me. I didn't want to spend my life watching the crops for signs of infections and crop-diseases, or waiting for monsoons in April and then praying for them to subside in September; or worse, worrying about the eternally fluctuating prices of the nuts in the Areca market of Sullia, the nearest town, where Ajja sold his yield from time to time.

Unknown to Ajja, I secretly harboured other desires. When I grew up, I would become a Gunsmith. Much like Gangayya, the lone Village Gunsmith. Gangayya and his profession fascinated me. They were a family of traditional Blacksmiths for generations, only one of their kinds in my village. Ajja often recalled how exceptionally good the shovels and the pick-axes and the sickles and the hammers were, the ones Gangayya's father crafted for him. Gangayya himself was a skilled blacksmith, until, as the rumor had it, he secretly taught himself the skills of gun-making in an obscure village of Tamiladu. It was not until he had reached his mid-career, the village population realized, how extraordinarily gifted Gangayya was. Within a few years, many homes in the tiny hamlet including mine, stealthily boasted of a country-made rifle or pistol fashioned by the Village Gunsmith. His fame soon spread like forest-fire, and according to the local gossipmongers, his clientele existed not just in the taluks of Puttur and Sullia, on whose borders my village lay, but stretched to as far as Madikeri in Coorg in the Western Ghats.

Gangayya's only son Madhava studied with me in Subbekeri Government Higher Primary school. I was the 'School Pupil Leader' of the lone village school which had an old battered building with classrooms separated by wooden partitions, the non-existent toilets, and a make-shift staff room. A total of four teachers, two of whom only turned up occasionally, managed two hundred and fifty pupils studying in seven different grades. As the School Pupil Leader, I had immense responsibility on my shoulders of managing this chaotic congregation. I had a way with people and kids were more than pleased to be friends with me. I chose my friends. And conveniently enough, Madhava was one of them.

Madhava's fate was pre-decided. He planned to drop out of school after completing Class 5, irrespective of whether he passed or failed the exams. He was going to be a Gunsmith like his father. After the school, in the evenings, he helped his father in latter's workshop, a ramshackle brick structure attached to the back of the house, veiled and curtained by sheets woven from dried coconut leaves, where the master Gun-maker melted, cast and molded the metal and polished the wood to build his guns. While I, the future inheritor of the five-acre areca garden, walked behind Ajja each evening, picking and collecting the fallen areca fruits into my netted bamboo basket, examining the roots of the palms and the excessive moisture that surrounded them, and contemplating new methods of preventing the fruits falling off the trees prematurely.

One day, Madhava brought something to school with him. It was an arty hand-made pistol, of a size that could have fitted into the oversized pockets of my Ajja's white jubba; the one he wore with his silk dhoti during the village temple fest. The gun had a solid barrel, and was heavy. It was crudely made and looked majestically masculine to my awestruck eyes. It could fire up to a distance of 50 feet.

'I built it myself', He said.

Within minutes, a group of boys gathered around Madhava to steal a look at the little monster. They all wanted to touch the gun and feel it. I could tell from everyone's faces that they were jealous of Madhava, who was, I keenly noted, trying to emulate Sankappa Rai; the only person hailing from Sullia who had made it big at the national levels. Sankappa Rai had started off as a petty gangster, but after murdering someone on Sullia Bypass Road in late seventies, had fled to Mumbai and earned his fame there. We now only saw him on papers or heard about him on the radio.

I wasn't just jealous of Madhava. I hated him from the bottom of my heart as a woman would hate her husband's mistress. I wanted to swap places with him. I didn't give a damn about Ajja's areca garden anymore. Madhava could have it all. I had to tell Ajja about how wrong he was in his planning for my future. He was going to be seriously disappointed with my career ambitions; but I had to convince him. I was going to complete my Higher Primary Education; that would still make me a fairly learned person in my village where the average education of the population was Class 5. And then I was going off to be a full-time apprentice in Gangayya's Workshop. And maybe one day in future, most probably on Ajja's sixtieth birthday, I will gift him a great gun built by me. Such a gift was certain to make Ajja happy.

Everyday, Madhava dedicated a few hours in the evening, arranging raw material for a day's production. He would then wait for his father, who'd spend his evenings in the local liquor shop, before returning home in an inebriated state. Drunken and swaying, but not knocked-out. The father-son duo would then have their supper, a bowl of red rice with a random vegetable Madhava's mother had cooked for them, and occasionally, even a piece of fish. They then set off to their 'workplace'. This is when Gangayya's real work began. The Gunsmith never worked during the day - when he either slept or just waddled around the low wooden benches of the dingy liquor shop gulping state-licensed alcohol. Madhava said his father sometimes had visitors at midnight. They would bring with them a bottle of colorless country-made liquor which would be enough to keep Gangayya working throughout the night. After two or three such nocturnal meetings, the client would have his requirement ready. He would then test it with some ammunition bought from a secret store in Sullia, feel satisfied, pay Gangayya a pre-decided fee and leave.

Gangayya never entertained a client who didn't come through a trustworthy referral, Madhava insisted. This was the only way to keep authorities away. 'Police can cause lot of trouble', Madhava said in a low, cautious tone, as if he were letting me on an ancient secret.

'Would your father be interested in taking up an apprentice in another two years?' I wanted to find out.

Now, Madhava was a skilled artisan but wasn't exactly a bright kid. He did not understand my question. He did not understand that I was looking for a possible job opportunity with his father after completing my higher primary education.

'Why would he need an apprentice for? I do everything', he declared as a matter of fact.

Perhaps Gangayya needed to be bribed with a bottle of country-liquor. Or better, a rift had to be created between him and his son. So that he sends off Madhava somewhere and hires me as an apprentice.

I contemplated visiting Gangayya on some night and talking him into my proposal. Somehow, I couldn't muster the courage. It would be very difficult explaining to my folks of my disappearance for one night.

On the brighter side, there still was time. A good number of two years. Things should fall into place by then, I told myself.

The rifels were used for nothing more than shooting down an odd wild boar - which the village farmers often accused as a nuisance-maker, which uprooted their tubers and banana saplings. There were considerable risks in killing a wild animal, both from the animal itself and the authorities; not to mention using a country-made unlicensed weapon for the job; therefore such secret, hideous, hunting expeditions were carried out by grown men during the nights. As far as I could stretch my memory, it was only once out of the twenty or more attempts made, the hunting-party returned with a catch. Perhaps the wild boars were too smart for grown men with illegal guns.

On a few occasions, I had seen my uncle, who was on his way to become a hermit, trying to shoot down a wild bird with the rifle. On such an extremely unlikely instance, he managed to hit the target too.

Apart from these few 'immoral' and 'injudicial' things, there wasn't much practical use of a rifle really, unless someone wanted to knock-off his enemy in cold-blood.

When the year of Class 6 began, as expected, Madhava didn't turn up at school. I did bump into him a few times a week; in the village Shiva Temple where he attended the Bhajan on Monday evenings, or sometimes at the local grocer's, or just randomly on the road, when he was out on an errand like buying a 'quarter' for his father from the liquor shop.

On one such occasion I asked him something I was dying to know. 'Is your father now teaching you to build rifles?'

'He’s busy for a few weeks. He's got a few visitors from Madikeri; I am making a new pick-axe for Babanna. Other times, I help Mother with household chores'.

I felt some relief when I heard that. Madhava had actually achieved nothing by dropping out of school. During the days, he was just a semi-employed Blacksmith.

'But', he quickly added, 'Father plans to teach me techniques of making guns that can fire up to as far as 200 feet once he gets his hands free'.

My relief disappeared and gloom descended. I made an excuse and took his leave to head towards home.

At school, I was one of the good students. I was, at the least, good at memorizing my school text books and reproducing it in the exams. When Class 6 ended, I stood a topper in the final exams. 'Class 7 will be the real test', Headmaster told me. I thought he smirked when he made that remark. I didn't care much either for his smirk or his remark. I had my own plans anyway.

Class 7 began and a few things happened in that year. Looking back, that was the only year of my childhood where some life-changing events did happen.

Firstly, close to my twelfth birthday, Ajja suddenly died. One morning, he wouldn't wake up at dawn as he usually did. He still didn't wake up when rest of the household got absorbed with their morning chores. Only when my Father went to check on him, did we realize that Ajja would never wake up again. He had passed away in his sleep sometime during the night.

A few months later, my Mother gave birth to a baby boy who looked like an adult tadpole that constantly wriggled. That was quite unexpected, at least for me. I had always believed that I was going to be the only son to my parents. The lone inheritor of Ajja's areca farm. Now we had another stakeholder for the 'coveted' post. The Wriggler was named after Ajja.

Following Ajja's demise, Father became the Head of the household. Used to Ajja's pampering, I wasn't very happy with Father's bossy demeanor around the house. My daily visits to the Areca farm had reduced; in fact, I noticed that Father didn't assign me any tasks related to the farm anymore. He had hired some Help for a fixed daily wage. Ajja would have never approved of such extravagance. During his time, Ajja had saved around a lakh rupees in his bank account (which I earlier assumed to be mine); however, Father's palm had more holes than one could count and at the rate at which he spent, my supposed future fortune was fast depleting.

I was asked by Father to stay at home and study. When I told him that I finished studying, he would say, 'Then revise'. This exchange kept repeating throughout the year.

When the results of Class 7 exams came, I had topped again. In no time, Father took me to his sister's house in Mangalore. Now, I have nothing against Mangalore. It is a nice city, where cows and auto-rickshaws roamed the streets in perfect harmony. It was also the only place where I had actually seen a Television. But I didn't appreciate Father's decision of enrolling me in an English medium school close to my aunt's house. I was told that everyone spoke only English there, even the teachers and students. That sounded preposterous. In Subbekeri Government Higher Primary School, no one spoke English. The one subject called ‘English’ was taught in Kannada. In fact, I had serious doubts about whether my 'English Teacher' in Subbekeri School could communicate in English at all.

Mangalore School was a different ball game altogether. I was given a pair of freshly pressed trousers and shirts that were going to be my school uniform. I was also given a brand new school-bag, of a color that I disliked. There was no question of expecting that Father would consult me while buying a school-bag, when he hadn't consulted me while choosing the school. I was given a place - a corner table and chair, in my aunt's living room. I was going to use another corner of the living room to sleep at night. Father would pay a monthly sum to aunt to cover for my food and other expenses. I'd also overheard him discussing with her how outrageous the fee at the English Medium School was. In other words, there was no doubt left in my mind that soon there were going to be multiple zeroes in Ajja's bank account. Page 2